Turf Wars: Race and Hipster Gentrification

As I am preparing notes for my class’ discussion of race, I am once again overwhelmed by the richness of the neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn as local sites for exploring how race and racism are inflected into the built environments and how much our home turfs – be they lush and green or gritty concrete – are intimately tied into our sense of identity. I asked students to read a short piece from Colorlines that reflected on a billboard campaigned launched in Bed-Stuy at the beginning of the year that is bringing the graphic imagination to the politics of race on the faces of bus stops and large-scale street advertisement windows all around the neighborhood.

Black-White Wealth Disparities

The billboards note not only the persistence of systemic racism that is a hallmark of American society, but also brings forward the question of neighborhood change and its relationship to the politics of race and racism that have shaped the contours of America’s cities for the past century, and how it is tied to the evolutions of neighborhood formation and change. Race and gentrification have a rather uneasy relationship in Brooklyn (was well as many other cities). As the article notes:

It’s no accident that of all of New York City’s neighborhoods, the billboards have targeted this one. A historically black neighborhood, Bed-Stuy has become one of the most contested spaces in New York City. A 2012 study from the Fordham Institute found that Brooklyn is home to 25 of the country’s most rapidly gentrifying zip codes. That’s created a stark contrast between those in the neighborhood who have more upward social and economic mobility than others. Several high profile media accounts have recently noted Bed Stuy’s so-called “hip” transformation and “resurgence”, but the borough’s medium per capita income in 2009 was just $23,000, which was $10,000 below the national average.

Gentrification is not stranger to Brooklyn, and the racial and class patterns of displacement are all too predictable, yet the fight against neighborhood change is also taking an interesting form in other ways at the street-level, not just with new businesses, new rents, and new neighbors, but with bike parking. From the City Room blog of the NYTimes:

In a city where gentrification debates usually involve real estate, the bike corral has emerged as a curious symbol, one that conjures feelings of displacement in some and empowerment in others…Roger Malcolm, who has lived in Crown Heights for 12 years and is also a cyclist, scoffs at the idea of locking either of his two bicycles at the corral. Mr. Malcolm believes the bike corral, while it is public property, sends an implicit signal that it is only for patrons of Little Zelda. It is an example, he said, of how newcomers are “changing the neighborhood.

I’m thinking of bringing this piece into my class because I think it helps to draw out the difference between the saliency of race as an identity that is tied to place and the troublesome nature of racism as an aspect of what creates strong community ties around race. I’m not only curious as to whether or not my students think that the RiSE campaign is tackling racism in an effective way but also if you can have both a campaign against racism (that effects where people live) and a campaign for a resistance to particular, racial and class, changes in neighborhoods, as some of the residents of Crown Heights are trying to mobilize around the potential removal of the bike corral.

There is just something so interesting to me about looking at these street markers next to each other: Markings of continuity and change in the big city – the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Little Zelda, photo: NYTimes
Racial Disparities in NYPD Stop and Frisk
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